The King of British wholesale and founder and Chairman of the Bestway Group, Sir Anwar Pervez OBE is one of Britain’s wealthiest Asians. His stupendous rise to success remains one of the most fascinating and unlikely rags to riches stories. A real wealth-generator who has created his own business and a great deal of employment from scratch, Sir Anwar Pervez ushered in a wholesale revolution in Britain. In 2004, the Bestway Group was worth an estimated 320 million pounds. He talks to Blue Chip about his life and career.
He inhabits a rarefied tier of success yet Sir Anwar Pervez is perfectly comfortable in my very basic office. He is soft-spoken and unfailingly courteous to all and only has a cup of tea after an hour of much insistence. I am immediately struck by his simplicity and want of ego. Not something you would expect from the founder of a multi billion pound empire.
The most influential figure in British wholesale spent his childhood in a small and poor village near Rawalpindi where going to school proved to be a formidable challenge. “I grew up in a very small village where there were no schools so I had to walk four miles to get to primary and middle school as a child of five, six, seven years old. It was not only me, the whole village had to do this as well.” Good colleges were also a scarcity. “In those days there were only two high schools. One was in Gujjar Khan which was 60 miles away from my home and the other was 38 miles away in Jhelum so I went to Jhelum for my high school education – it was a very difficult situation for people to study. But when I went to Jhelum, I had to stay there because for 38 miles there was no transport- there is still no proper transport today. It’s a very neglected area.”
After completing High School from Jhelum, Sir Anwar went to England in search of better opportunities. Little did everyone know that this young man who had grown up in such adverse conditions would soon surpass all imaginable expectations.
Building a community
“I started working and making money and saving,” says Sir Anwar, “not only making it but saving it as well- it is important. If you spend it you have nothing in your hand,” he emphasizes.
Sir Anwar has always valued the importance of family and community and so brought his extended family to England to join him. “As soon as I could afford it, I asked my brother in law to come and then my cousin and my other bothers. So within two years, my whole family was all there.”
Sir Anwar hadn’t forgotten about his local community back home and continued to provide support to his friends and relatives in Pakistan. He explains how this sort of assistance has a knock-on effect. “We started helping the local area- my friends in Jhelum, my friends in my village town. The people I brought to England, they started helping their own friends and relatives. So everybody was helping…so there was a time when everybody from our area went to England and started earning good wages and salaries. There was hardly anybody who was not fit to go to England. I took them to England and they are earning good salaries and wages and now they are happy people.”
Minimum Wage, Double Shift
“At the very beginning when I went in 1956 the basic salary used to be 7 pounds for 14 hours and I used to be working double shift so I used to get 18-20 pounds a week, seven days a week. I had no time to spend it and all this money was saved so in four or five years I had 4000 pounds and then I bought the house in London for 6,200 pounds I think.” He borrowed the extra amount from the bank but soon paid it back by letting a portion of the property.
In 1963 he opened his first shop in Earls Court. “From 1963 to 1968, for five years I was learning about the economy, because I was not a businessman,” explains Sir Anwar.
“In those days you could only be open for five and a half days a week but now it’s seven days and you can open any hours. In those days it was five and a half days from nine in the morning to half past five or six o’ clock.” This limited the growth of Sir Anwar’s business. “Because of that we were restricted to certain customers and our business was not growing. I thought it was silly to cater to a customer base which represented hardly half of the entire community, perhaps a quarter of it. So I opened my second shop on the high street and started catering to the local community. Whatever I expected to do in a year’s time I did in the first week because there was demand. I was there at the right time.”
Sir Anwar also started to stay open late seven days a week. “I think I was the first one open late and seven days a week although it was illegal in those days but I did it,” admits Sir Anwar. “I have been fined a few times as well. The sad thing is, I remember I used to go to the court and they would say, ‘you are guilty’ and I would say that yes, I am guilty and they would fine me five or ten pounds. Now everybody is doing the same thing and when I look back, what was I guilty of doing? Hard work.”
Apart from incurring fines, Sir Anwar’s hard work also brought him unprecedented success. “We were very successful and soon after I opened another shop which was very successful because all other big multiples were open for five and a half days and I was the only one who was open late and seven days a week.”
By staying open late in violation of legal regulations, Sir Anwar was actually helping to fulfill an unsatisfied demand. The authorities soon realized this and began to turn a blind eye.
A wholesale revolution
Sir Anwar’s foray into wholesale consolidated and led to exponential growth, firmly establishing him as the king of wholesale in the United Kingdom. What prompted him to venture into wholesale? It certainly wasn’t money. His customers, primarily old ladies and pensioners would complain to him that his prices were too high. He was genuinely concerned by this and tried to see what he could do to lower his prices. “I had a lot of old age pensioners and widows who lived around my shop area and I would be on the shop floor myself working as the manager. They would come and say that Mr. Pervez, you are a very nice man, open seven days a week and you’re very charming but your prices are very high. You cannot build a relationship between yourself and your customers if they feel that you are not being fair with them. I knew that I was not ripping them off – my buyer was wrong. I used to buy from the wholesalers who were charging us at least 10-11% more than the multiples. So when your buying is wrong naturally you will pass it on to the consumer.” He began exploring ways to acquire goods at better rates and pass on the lower prices to his customers. “The old ladies who live around the block, they can’t go to a big multiple which is far away. They don’t have cars, they have a certain income as well, and they are on a very low pension. So it had less to do with business and was more out of social mindedness. I should give them a better service with reasonable prices.” So his revolution of wholesale culture in Britain was prompted more by his conscience rather than canny business strategy and represents not only an incredible business feat but also a brave ethical victory.
But reforming an entrenched wholesale culture could not be done overnight and took a great deal of patience and perseverance on Sir Anwar’s part. “In those days to acquire a wholesale you had to get planning permission which took a long time. Once I got the planning permission we opened it in1976. Then it took me two years to change the culture of the shopkeepers. Not everybody is like me to think where we can improve. They were having a good living and couldn’t care less about their customers,” says Sir Anwar.
“When we opened the cash and carry, I did a survey and noted that people were buying at 10-11%, from the wholesalers. I wanted to give better prices to other shop keepers as well so they could pass on lower prices to the local community.” Again, Sir Anwar emphasizes the importance of the community which he holds in high regard. “Local community is very very important. It’s not just about the customer; it’s about the community.”
Sir Anwar began supplying wholesale goods at cheaper prices but still had to convince shopkeepers to pass on lower prices to the consumers instead of increasing their margin. “The distribution cost of the multiples was about 6% and that left a 4% profit. So I started charging 3.5% at that time to my customers (the shopkeepers) and we started educating them: Look there is no need to buy cheap from us and put the money in your pocket-you should pass it on to the consumer because you will get goodwill and respect from your local community and your profits will go up.” Sir Anwar effectively ushered in a revolution of lower prices and community confidence. Those who followed survived and consolidated their business but those who resisted change were left behind. “People who followed us, their businesses started flourishing and they opened two or three more shops and people who didn’t follow us finished.”
By supplying to retailers at more affordable prices, Sir Anwar helped to build up a trust and confidence within the wholesale-retail-consumer relationship by putting the customer first at every level, both as a retailer and as a member of the public.
But Sir Anwar also had to surmount prevailing prejudices and worked hard to gain confidence with his customers and suppliers. “At that time when I was selling very cheap I was getting a very bad name from the existing wholesalers and the cash and carry people. In England you can buy on credit and sell and run away to Pakistan so everybody was giving me a hard time and not trusting me. So it took a long time to get the trust of the suppliers and at the same time the trust of the customers as well. You have to have confidence and trust between your suppliers, between your customers and between your employees so I think I was lucky that I was able to create that trust.”
He gave a 10% share of the business to an Indian man called Mr. Gupta. “He was very good and hard working, not only in the daytime but also in the evening, visiting people and slowly and steadily brainwashing them to come to the cash and carry. So that did very well and in two or three years we were established.” He took on three more people and gave each a 10% share although none of them had invested any capital in the business because they were “hardworking people with a similar thinking.” All the original members are still with the business except Mr. Gupta who passed away. Their children have also joined the business. “I have no regrets because without them perhaps I wouldn’t have done it,” says Sir Anwar.
Pride of Britain, Pride of Pakistan
In 1992, Sir Anwar was awarded Britain’s highest national honour, the Order of the British Empire or O.B.E. The Anwar Pervez from a small village near Rawalpindi was now officially Sir Anwar Pervez. It was an honour that he richly deserved. He had effectively brought prices down from 10 and 11% to 3.5 and 4% which was of enormous benefit to members of the public. With his vision and foresight, Sir Anwar had infused a sense of integrity and equity into the wholesale business.
Investing in Pakistan
Sir Anwar’s investment experience in Pakistan has been interesting to say the least. He first started to seriously consider investing in Pakistan in 1991 during the Nawaz Sharif regime. “In 1992 Nawaz Sharif became the Prime Minister. He started promoting Pakistan abroad and he invited all the overseas Pakistanis to Islamabad and I was very much convinced by his attitude. When I went from Pakistan to England, I didn’t go as a refugee or as an immigrant; I went to find better opportunities. So I always wanted to come back but the situation was not that good. So for the first time he created a situation and I was very happy to come back.” But Sir Anwar’s positive experience was to be short lived.
Sir Anwar initially planned to invest in the textile sector and after acquiring land and opening a Letter of Credit, the textile sector suddenly slumped and he had to reconsider his investment options.
After conducting extensive research, Sir Anwar believed that Pakistan’s cement industry held great potential for growth. At this point, the Nawaz government was supplanted by the Benazir Bhutto regime which offered attractive concessions for potential investors. In particular investors in NWFP and Balochistan were given three advantages: nil import duty, no sales tax for five years and no income tax for five years. Encouraged by these incentives, Sir Anwar decided to set up a cement factory in NWFP and brought in English expertise. “I thought that they were very good incentives.” He collaborated with Rugby Cement. “I convinced them to come to Pakistan at my own expense because I had no knowledge of cement or how to set up factories especially from a Greenfield- you have to bring some expertise and they had the expertise. They were very happy to join us.” But Sir Anwar was soon to be subjected to capricious and inconsistent government policy.
After a challenging and harrowing investment experience, what possessed him to invest in Chakwal? Sir Anwar explains, “That is the challenge for the businessman. The more the difficulty, the more the pressure, the more you want to do more, you want to prove yourself. Not prove yourself in an arrogant way. But you want to do something for your country and you want to prove that there is a right way of doing things as well.”
“When we bought United Bank, the economy was not very good, it was 2001 I think and there were not a lot of people willing to buy the bank.” Yet again, Sir Anwar found himself up against a familiar foe. “There was only one other party and that party was the same gentleman who told me that he could finish it [the law] in no time.” Sir Anwar feared that the same industrialist who had displayed such cavalier disregard for the law would acquire United Bank for a steal. “I thought that if he was alone, he would take it for a very low price. So unless I come myself, at least there are two prices and if I don’t get it, at least he won’t pay a throwaway price, he will have to pay a good price.” Once again, Sir Anwar was spurred into action by principle rather than business strategy. “Then I went to see Sheikh Nahayan and he was very happy to join with me and I was very happy to join with him on a 50-50 basis. So at least this was a help to the Pakistan government again. Instead of throwing it away, they got good money.”
But was there anything else that drew him to investing in Pakistan’s banking sector? Apparently, the banking sector had little to offer and the acquisition was based entirely on principle. “I just said that the Government of Pakistan should get a good price for the bank. And if the industrialist gets it, he has to pay- he should not get it for nothing,” emphasizes Sir Anwar.
Despite the lackluster performance of the banking sector at the time of United Bank’s purchase, it has developed into a dynamic and highly successful institution. “UBL is doing very well,” reports Sir Anwar. However, he believes that the banking sector at large suffers from an ethical deficit in the wake of nationalization. “Since nationalization, we have lost the integrity and honesty of the old banking system because people were coming in without merit and were not properly trained so it was survival of the fittest. Now the banking industry has become so strong but the ethics of the general banker have disappeared and it is all about money. I want to restore that integrity and credibility in banking so people can trust us more than what they used to. Everything is about trust- if there is a trust then you will do very well.”
But Sir Anwar also feels the effects of Pakistan’s acute scarcity of skilled human resources. “The problem with United Bank is human resources and we are working very hard. But it will take a long time. We are bringing in new blood but it cannot be done overnight. You have to give them training for three, four or five years.”
However, bringing about change is a tough balancing act and rationalizing staff can be tricky business. “We can’t sack them because there will be an outcry. So we have to keep the old people and bring in new blood as well. So once the new blood is there, I hope, they won’t be perfect either, but will be much better than what we have now. With time things will change I’m sure. But it’s not only the banking industry- the whole country has to change for a better tomorrow.”
“If you only work for money you will never be a rich man”- Sir Anwar Pervez
Sir Anwar believes that generosity is essentially innate. “I believe people are born selfish or giving to others -it’s inborn. When I was living in Jhelum, if anybody came to my village, I would give my bed and sleep on the floor so it has always been natural to me.”
His mother, who has been the greatest influence in his life was renowned for her generosity. “My mother was very kind as well. She would give to everybody.” In 1973, his mother built a mosque with a hostel for students on Peshawar Road where it still stands and is run today by the Bestway Foundation. The Bestway Foundation also donated to earthquake relief.
Deprived of a decent education as a child, Sir Anwar is passionate about providing access to quality education for underprivileged children. “I have a craze for education,” he says. In both England and Pakistan, he gives 2.5% of his profits to charity each year. The Bestway Foundation has adopted 29 schools in Gujjar Khan and recently took over a boys’ and girls’ college. “As we are ambitious in business, we are ambitious in charity as well,” says Sir Anwar. He is profoundly concerned about the abysmal state of the schools in Gujjar Khan, “The buildings are practically non-existent with water leaking everywhere and only three or four teachers.” The Bestway Foundation also donated Rs 20 million to the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) for setting up a science facility.
In England, Sir Anwar’s contribution to education has been outstanding. He has continuously assisted the British government in funding schools short of financial resources. He supports a scheme called the City Technical Colleges Scheme which provides financial support to schools on the condition that the headmaster of the school achieves certain financial targets. “He has to prove that he is doing a good job,” says Sir Anwar. Rather than just giving handouts, this system encourages schools to run more efficiently. In 1987 he set up a school from which two Pakistani girls went to Cambridge and he sponsors four schools every year. He is also a generous donor to the British charity Age Concern.
Because he was unable to experience the benefits of a quality education, Sir Anwar has educated his children in the world’s finest schools and colleges. His children have graduated from Eton and Oxford. “One is a lawyer and two are chartered accountants,” he says with pride.
Sir Anwar Pervez works seven days a week from seven in the morning to eleven or midnight. If he isn’t’ working, he is attending meetings, dinners and charity events. Naturally, he hasn’t had much spare time on his hands. However, since becoming Chairman of the Bestway Group, he allows himself Sunday off. “On Sundays a few of my friends come to my house and we go for a walk in the woodlands. We do about seven miles in two hours. If I am not in England, I make sure that I am exercising and walking somewhere.” Sir Anwar is also fond of music particularly Pakistani songs. “It gives me happiness for my soul.”
He has a visceral suspicion of credit cards and only started using them recently. “I hated credit cards. I used to think that if a bill goes to my bank account and money isn’t there how am I going to face this. So it’s better to spend from my pocket and forget about it. I have a different philosophy about financials and I am very lucky. I wanted to earn first and then spend and some people want to spend on the credit card, especially in the United Kingdom and the Western world.”
Sir Anwar’s phenomenal success can be put down to intelligence, determination and sheer hard work. But he believes it’s down to something different. “By nature I am more social minded rather than just money minded. If you go through my life, I only became rich by helping others for good causes.”
Though he has come a long way, he has not lost his modesty. “People say now you are a rich man but I have never been a poor man my whole life because I never spent more money than my income. When I was earning 100 pounds my overhead was 70 pounds or 80 pounds. So all along I never had financial difficulties at any time. I know what I can do and I do it accordingly.” In fact, he has fond memories of his double- shift minimum wage days, “When I look back those were my best days and I enjoyed working. I have happy memories of those days.”
Awards and Honours
In 1992 Sir Anwar Pervez was awarded an OBE and a Knights Bachelor in 1999 in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to business and charity. In 2000, he was awarded the Hilal-e-Paksitan by the Pakistan government for his services to the country.
The Bestway Foundation
The Bestway Foundation was established in 1987 in the United Kingdom and in Pakistan in 1997. The Bestway Group donates 2.5% of its annual profits to the Bestway Foundation.
In 2004 US$ 1 million was granted for village schools and hospitals in Pakistan. Since 1994 over US$ 8 million has been granted to student scholarships and other good causes.
The Bestway Group includes:
Bestway Direct Limited